It’s 5.30 am in Uttar Pradesh’s Lahra village. One household is slowly rousing from its sleep, shaking off the covers before the sun can rise, to have its first cup of ginger tea. Making ginger tea first thing in the morning is a ritual observed in many homes across India, but this is no ordinary home – it is the residence of sisters Sudha and Radha, an octogenarian and nonagenarian duo who have decided to spend the autumn of their lives together.
Their husbands are long gone and their families are settled, but their shared existence is not without colour. This, combined with their everyday musings and outlook towards death, are the subject of a documentary titled Aunty Sudha Aunty Radha, made by their niece Tanuja Chandra.
Moving to the village certainly seems like it has given the two women a new lease on life. They don’t pass their days as though they’re approaching the end. “I think my aunts are enjoying life more now than ever before. No one judges them in the village, there's nothing left to prove to anyone. And if one can't do this at 86 and 93, then when can one!” Chandra says.
She describes their relationship as typical of close sisters – raw and frank, while being simultaneously warm and caring.
“They're almost like twins who are very different from each other, and yet depend on each other for everything. Emotionally, umbilically attached forever,” she says.
While Radha is accommodating to the point of not caring sometimes, Sudha is finicky. Radha loves recounting old memories, but Sudha prefers not delving into the past. One of the many sweet moments in the documentary is when the sisters reveal that they only hug when one of them has fallen sick.
Sudha and Radha’s interactions are like conversational ping-pong, where each subject is deliberated over after both parties have given their opinion (often opposing the other’s). Will Radha have rusk with her tea, Sudha asks – No, she’s not hungry – But she must – But she’d rather not – But she needs to, so she can take her medicines later – Fine, she might as well. Their conversations also follow a certain cyclical process, from discussion to conflict to annoyance, and finally, reconciliation – until the subject changes, and the cycle begins again.
They really embody the term ‘shared existence’, because they do practically everything together: soaking in the sun in the mornings, reading the newspaper. But when they’re having their breakfast, Aunty Sudha and Aunty Radha sit with their backs to each other, on opposite sides of their bed.
Chandra explains this particular phenomenon: “Like most things in their lives, even this activity is geared toward physical ease. Since they both have bad knees, they prefer to reduce their movement. Their bed is their place of ultimate comfort and the height of the tables in front of them is the perfect height, as opposed to the dining table. Also, they don't really need to look at each other while eating anymore. They even sleep together, so this bit about having their backs to one another is hardly something they would bother avoiding. They've lost all need for false niceties, that they love and need each other is only too evident in their behaviour.”
Chandra says that her aunts were immediately willing to be part of the documentary. “They don't feel the need to impress the world anymore, neither do they have any bitterness in their hearts about difficulties they may have experienced in their lives, which enabled them to be completely natural in front of our cameras. They were easy-going, chatty, they loved hosting us, they laughed and they reminisced,” she says. This tendency to not be conscious of cameras is a distinctly small-town trait, she believes, because they have no facades to put up, nor any affectations.
Everyday chores and activities seem to fill up their days, and they seem quite content about this aspect. But this does not mean that spiritual reflection is absent from their lives, Chandra asserts. “They do have philosophical dialogue within their own minds as well as with each other. They do think of things past, they remember people and places. However, there is a kind of simplicity in whatever they do, whether it's cerebral or physical,” she says.
As a city dweller, Chandra doubts she can ever retire to the village, but she admires her aunts’ ability to meet life and its limitations with open arms. “They don't hesitate in going where their mind is taking them, just like they'll eat what they feel like without deliberating whether it's good or bad for them. It's enviable, this lack of hesitation, this tendency to simply act upon their longings,” she says.
They seem keenly aware of death and are unafraid to speak of it.
Chandra says their attitude towards it is largely dismissive. “They know it's around the corner (although the domestic help thinks the older one will cross a hundred!) but they don't dwell on the coming of death. They're at peace with its imminence and until the inevitable does happen, they'll make sure they enjoy life,” she explains. They have no illusions about it, they only hope it will come sans fuss, and they’ll greet it without fanfare or fear, she adds. The sisters acknowledge that life will be tough for the one who survives the other.
They’re actively involved in the running of their house, and despite their age, they’re keen to keep improving aspects of it, like the garden.
I’d go so far as to say the blooming, thriving garden is a metaphor for the house’s inhabitants and their life, and their insistence on not being passive spectators to the passage of time.
This independence to take decisions seems to me a way to ensure their dignity and happiness is preserved – a right that many old people are robbed of in India. Chandra agrees. “The fact that these two are financially independent makes for a lot of their happiness. They don't depend on anyone for their livelihood. And at the same time, their minds are very active, not dull in the least. For such people it becomes very important to think creatively and keep growing in some way or another,” she says. It’s the reason why Sudha continues to buy saris, though she hardly wears them anymore, Chandra adds.
The autonomy to live by themselves and on their own terms is made possible only because of the labour of the domestic help who work in their house, who do a considerable number of tasks – cooking, cleaning, tending to the garden. Chandra describes them as the lifeline of the house. “They don't just look after them, doing all the daily chores and tending to the vegetable patch in the garden, they also provide much of the banter, the gossip, the tone of the place. They aren't just caretakers, they're more of an extended family. It's mutually beneficial because the aunts help them and their families financially while they give the aunts all the comfort they can,” she explains.
I ask Chandra if the decision to include herself in the documentary is a conscious one. She says that it was, and that she is glad she was able to glide into conversations with them, without too much awkwardness. “I guess it's because I've been close to them and know that if something they say makes me laugh, I can do so without wondering if it'll offend them. They're both funny people and I laugh easily myself, which is what made the shoot a lot of fun,” she explains. The documentary took her back to the early days of her career, where she worked under Amit Khanna and Mahesh Bhatt at Plus Channel, creating documentary shorts about social interest stories.
She says the other big difference is that the editor is one of the chief architects of the final narrative in a documentary.
“In that sense, a documentary is more democratic than fiction. In a documentary, the other technicians are principal storytellers as well,” she says.
Was her creative process different this time, since she was working with non-fiction? “Yes it was, in that one has less control on what's happening in front of the camera, so one has to forget about the cameras, allowing the talented individuals operating them to decide their placement and the magnification of the image, while one as the director focuses entirely on the subject,” Chandra explains.
Ordinarily, the challenge with such small-budget projects is assembling a team of technicians, but the director believes that the experience and goodwill she has earned over the years meant that she did not face this difficulty. “Documentary isn't as revered a medium in India as it should be. I think it's a brilliant medium and I do wish people would greet it with enthusiasm and excitement here as they do internationally… The challenge in a sense, begins now. I'd like to take this film to as many festivals as I can,” she says.
Aunty Sudha Aunty Radha had its world premiere at the 2019 Madrid International Film Festival.
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